48 hours in the Cairngorms

At the beginning of March and after what seemed like an eternity of grey skies, floods, rain and more rain I spotted a gap in the weather. We are not averse to walking in the rain or bad weather in general, but let’s be honest it’s not the best. My first instinct was to head west as we haven’t done that for so long now. Our sights quickly changed closer to home and choosing 48 hours in the Cairngorms. It was to be a treat for our 14th anniversary together and so a road  trip was definitely in order.

We knew we would want to spend the days exploring new trails and I was hoping to do some cold water swimming.

Our original plan was to travel up just for the day but then Dude decided we should stay over and make the most of the weather. With a hotel room booked we got out all the guide books we have looking for inspiration. We’ve been to Aviemore quite a lot but we always find something new to do. This was the first time we’d been since I had started swimming so I was super excited to be packing my kit for a road trip.

Armed with a plan, an OS map, some guide books, clean undies and a toothbrush each (and obviously a whole car boot rammed with stuff because we don’t can’t travel light) we set off. It’s takes just ninety minutes (ish) to drive to Aviemore from Perth. Our adventure was on!

Day one

Rothiemurchus and the iron bridge walk

One of our favourite times of the year to travel is winter and early spring. It’s so much quieter, there’s no midges and on a bonnie day there’s no place I’d rather be than Scotland.

After looking through our maps and walking books, we opted for a walk on the Rothiemurchus estate. A 7km circular route that we were to discover had spectacular mountain views and although relatively flat was most enjoyable.

At this time of year we had no trouble parking on the side of the road near the Rothiemurchus Camp and Caravan park. In summer months I would recommend using the proper car parks. Boots on, back pack with lunches and water in, we were all set.

We started following the small track that runs alongside the caravan park and soon found ourselves surrounded by big old pine trees. It’s signed for the much longer Lairig Ghru route which runs from Deeside to Strathspey. We were to get a good view of the higher mountain pass later on.

Lairig Ghru, Cairngorms

Leaving the road behind us we quickly immersed ourselves in the smells and sounds of the trail. Stopping to watch treecreepers busy at work, creeping around tree trunks. I wonder how they got their name? With spring almost here the birds were singing away with territorial calls and serenades to find a mate.

Coming to a fork in the route and Dude consults our little walk book to discover our next path. Left, left, left.

For most of this first part of the walk I could hear running water not far away. So when I found a small track going toward it I excitedly headed over. It was the river Druie and considering all the water we have had in recent months I thought it looked quite low.

Back at the main trail and we still hadn’t crossed paths with anyone.

Lairig Ghru, Cairngorms

One thing we had noticed though was how warm it was. I had already taken my jacket off and tied it around my waist. It really did feel like spring had sprung.

We made it to the Iron Bridge and after crossing the water decided it would make a perfect lunch stop. We unpacked our sandwiches, fruit and water bottle and stood in silence, taking in our surroundings. Admiring the bridge which is also known as the Cairngorm Club Footbridge. It was built in 1912 by the local climbers’ club to make the Lairig Ghru route entirely accessible.

Lairg Ghru, Cairngorms

Lairig Ghru, Cairngorms

Lairig Ghru, Cairngorms

Of course, the cold water swimmer in me couldn’t help but test the temperature with my hands. It was definitely suitable for a swim. But that wasn’t what this adventure was about. Next time.

Just as we decided to move on we saw people! The first ones since leaving the main road, we highly recommended the other side as a good scenic picnic spot and carried on our way. Back tracking just a few metres to the fork in the trail. Here we took the left hand fork – the right would take us back to the car.

It was at this point the view really opens up. The wide open space, framed by snow capped mountains that on this clear, sunny day we had an excellent view of. Proving once more that not all walks in Scotland mean having to scale a mountain.

Lairig Ghru, Cairngorms

Lairig Ghru, Cairngorms

We continued to pass lochans, juniper bushes and the vista changed continually. At one point we could see where the Lairig Ghru route takes walkers through a pass onward towards Braemar. We decided the next time we do this walk we’ll do it in reverse so that we don’t have to keep turning around to admire the view.

Lairig Ghru, Cairngorms Before long we found ourselves back at the car and talking of gin and tonic.

MacDonald Highlands Hotel

Dude had booked us a night at the MacDonald Highlands Hotel. We had stayed here back in 2017 for his birthday and were well looked after and the Dinner, Bed and Breakfast offer was too good to turn down.

The hotel is part of a resort, with access to shops, leisure facilities, a cinema and a good choice of restaurants. It’s also just a short walk from the main street in Aviemore which is packed full of culinary delights, outdoor shops, outdoor shops and a few pubs. So there is no chance of getting bored.

I had packed my second swimsuit as I knew we would take time to relax in the pool and sauna before dinner. It was weird swimming indoors again after the tranquility of my regular cold water loch swims. Enjoyable non the less.

We had booked a table for 7pm and both of us were ravenous after all the fresh air and exercise. Neither of us took long deliberating over the menu (which is unusual) – to start I chose wild mushrooms on toast with soft poached egg. Dude picked Shetland crab cakes with a tomato and chilli jam and fennel salad. We don’t normally choose the same food but tonight we were both eyeing up the Scotch beef burger in a brioche bun with caramelised onions, Mull cheddar, mustard mayo, thick cut chips and homemade pickles. Pure filth and utterly delicious.

Stuffed and content with our fill we shuffled our way down the never ending long corridors to our room.

Keen to make a the most of out 48 hours in the Cairngorms, I got out the maps and walk books to look for inspiration whilst enjoying a decaf coffee before bed.

MacDonald Hotels, Aviemore

Thanks to an Instagram friend who lives locally she gave me recommendations on where to swim too. Sharing her swim spot with me even though she was unable to join me. Also making suggestions for where we could do a relatively short walk so that I could warm up after my swim too.

Day two

Cold water swimming at Loch Vaa

In my usual swim spot in Perthshire the water hadn’t dropped below 2°c and with winter drawing to an end I was eager to swim in sub 2° water.

With my swim bag all packed and ready to go we checked out of the hotel having fuelled up on mini croissants, ham and cheese for me – a full Scottish breakfast for Dude. Enough to keep us going for our walk too.

Loch Vaa is not far from the centre of Aviemore, just a short drive. I felt excited to be swimming in a new place but my face must have been a picture when I saw the ice on the water too. The definition of ice swimming is anything below 5°c, so technically I had been ice swimming all winter.

Loch Vaa, Cairngorms

I know it’s not a game of Top Trumps and a bragging right but for me this was a milestone. Less than twelve months since my first swim. Nearly completed my first winter of swimming outdoors and to top it off with ice was the icing on the cake. Something I could be proud of. Something I had accomplished.

Cold water swimming, Cairngorms

Dude was with me and whilst I swam in the clearest of water he stood on the shore basking in the sun and taking photos. I dipped in and out of the water for twenty minutes or so. Posing for photos with delicate slabs of ice, getting back in for a bit more swimming and then getting in with my phone for photos. Absolute bliss. I even took my time getting dressed in the warm sunshine.

Once I was dressed in all my layers we decided to take a quick march around the edge of the loch to the wee boat house. Helping to warm me straight back up again and get the blood back out to my extremities. Turns out it was actually quite breezy around this side so we didn’t stay long.

Boat House at Loch Vaa, Cairngorms

Back to the car and the heated seats on and head off slightly south of Aviemore for our chosen walk.

Uath lochans and Inshriach forest

I had seen many photographs of the four lochans that nestled amidst the old pines of Glen Feshie. If I’m honest I don’t think any of them prepared us for what we were about to see. We were grateful that the sun was still shining and that the view from the top would be clear.

The car park was empty when we arrived and the songs from small birds echoed around us. The damp smell of the forest was intoxicating, fresh pine needles with a hint of spring maybe? I spotted the first of the lochans and made a beeline for the water. After the clear water earlier for my swim I was surprised to see than this was almost inky black. My mind immediately went into overdrive thinking of all the monsters that could be lurking under the peaty surface. Something I have managed to suppress each time I swim. An over active imagination is NOT a swimmers friend!

Following the track on the far side of the lochan the gradual climb began straight away. I’d read somewhere that some of the trees in this area were around 120 years old. Now they are home for a multitude of wildlife.

Uath Lochans, Glen Feshie, Cairngorms

Following the red route signs, we took a path off to the right and it immediately rises quite steeply to reach the tops of the crags.

You know that bit in the Lion King where Simba is taken to the edge of the rock by Rafiki? Well that’s exactly what this reminded me of. A large boulder at the top of Farleitter crag with scenery to die for. Below us were the four lochans (and where all the other photos I’ve seen of this place have been take), trees as far as the eye could see and mountains. It was perfect.

Uath Lochans, Glen Feshie, Cairngorms

We spent quite a while up here looking through the binoculars and being in the moment. What a beautiful place.

From here we could have returned the same way as we came but decided to continue down and through the woods. Not much of a view at all along this part of the trail but we saw plenty of what we think was pine marten poo and listened to the birds all the way back to the car. This is just a 4km – ish, loop and we wanted to make the most of the weather before travelling back home.

We were sad to be leaving so soon but knew we had filled our time wisely. Although not over just yet. I had spied a wee cafe as we drove through Kingussie earlier on. So on the way back we decided to stop for coffee and cake at the Old Post Office cafe. What a treat that was! The lunch menu looked fabulous too, and we shall definitely be making a stop there again for something more substantial.

Old Post office cafe, coffee and cake, Cairngorms

It’s not goodbye, it’s see ya later

As always the national park had excelled in it’s delivery of a superb short break away. We had filled our 48 hours in the Cairngorms with fresh air, new trails, ice swimming and made lots of new memories.

I love that we are blessed to have this playground practically on our doorstep. Although in these uncertain times, we don’t know when we will have another visit to the Cairngorms that certainly won’t stop us doing research for new adventures there or anywhere else across Scotland.

For now, we are making the most of exploring from our own doorstep.

Here are the routes from the Walk Highlands website for both the walks in this post:

Rothiemurchus forest and the Iron Bridge
Farleitter Crag and Uath Lochans

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